Michael Hicks commentary: The model speech on diversity and respect
By now, most readers will have heard the superintendent of the Air Force Academy’s speech on diversity and respect. I was happy to see it go viral on social media, not least because my 18-year-old daughter was one of the 4,500 cadets and faculty assembled to hear Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria. His speech was one of the clearest talks on respect and diversity in recent decades.
It is sad but unsurprising that the most consequential address on diversity over the past few years should come from the armed forces. It stands in stark contrast to the many blunders on issues of race and diversity on America’s campuses in recent years. Silveria’s speech should be required reading of every college president in the country. Moreover, it is worth pondering why the military’s commitment to equality and diversity is so much more effective than that of our other great institutions.
I begin with some caveats. America’s armed forces don’t offer insight into every ill of the Republic. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are full of splendid young people from all walks of life. They also have many of the same flaws of our society as a whole. These institutions, including the one I served with in peace and combat over three decades are imperfect. Their struggle to become better is not over. Still, in matters of diversity, no other institution even approaches the success of the armed forces. Lt. Gen. Silveria’s talk made clear why.
First, there are no diversity officers in the military. Establishing respect for one another is the job of all leaders, from corporal to general.
Second, the military provides a well-reasoned purpose to embrace diversity — the success of the mission. The clarity and intent of pursuing diversity in the armed forces stands in stark contrast to most university programs on diversity. Every university diversity program I have seen justifies itself in terms of Marxist victimology and identity politics. These poorly reasoned arguments are the bane of the diversity discussion on campus. It should be unsurprising that campus diversity fuels resentment from nearly everyone.
Universities and other American institutions would benefit from seeking diversity for the most straightforward of reasons. It is the fastest way to assemble talent. The military is diverse because leaders need gifted, courageous and hardworking colleagues. They know these traits don’t come wrapped in one skin tone, hair color, gender, religion or sexual preference. It is simply that straightforward.
The military’s diversity efforts aren’t about righting the sins of forefathers or ranking people by the many ways they may suffer discrimination through intersectionality. The military result isn’t Marxian equality. Rather it is a ruthless meritocracy based on qualities that matter; not the color of your skin, the number of syllables in your last name or who you sleep with. Ideas matter in everything we do, and support for diversity should be justified by the simplest of notions, not failed Marxist dogma.
The third reason the military is astonishingly good at diversity is that this was a common speech. To be sure, Lt. Gen. Silveria offered a more pointed and eloquent talk than most. But, like so many others, his words were delivered to a room full of teenagers from every congressional district and walk of life. Their only common trait was in volunteering to serve their country in time of war. The essence of his speech was that there is strength in our differences and that to unlock that strength we must respect one another and honor those things we do together. That is a variation on a theme heard from Valley Forge to Kabul.
Lt. Gen. Silveria speech went viral because so many Americans are tired of the status quo and have been inoculated to reason by the puerile, bombastic and vacuous racial discourse of our times. For those of us that look for real leadership on these matters Silveria’s words are a welcomed tonic.
Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.